A group of Australians unable to return home because of a strict COVID-19 quota on arrivals has filed legal action against their government.
The complaint has been lodged with the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva over claims that Australians are being excluded from entering their own country.
Authorities in Canberra closed international borders in March 2020 to curb the spread of the new coronavirus.
Citizens and permanent residents are allowed back, but numbers returning are limited because of capacity constraints on airlines and in mandatory hotel quarantine.
Since the pandemic began, almost 500,000 Australians have come home, but tens of thousands are still waiting to fly back.
With community transmission of COVID-19 largely eliminated, the greatest risk to Australia is returning travelers who have brought the virus with them and have inadvertently infected hospital and hotel staff, according to health officials.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk says it is a major concern.
“The numbers from overseas in our hospitals is now 68 returned travelers coming back, and like I said, that is a real risk for us.”
A group of frustrated Australians has taken legal action because of what is described as the government’s “extreme restrictions.” They say they are “ordinary Aussies who have been left high and dry by an unfeeling government.”
In Canberra, officials have conceded that they could not predict when all stranded Australians would finally return home. They have said that quotas on those permitted to return were “temporary and will be reviewed.”
Jane McAdam, director of the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, a research center at the University of New South Wales, says both sides of the dispute have valid arguments.
“Under international human rights law, there is no absolute right to enter one’s country, but at the same time the government cannot arbitrarily deprive you of that right. So, what that means is that people’s entry may be subject to brief, temporary restrictions provided that they are reasonable, they are necessary, and they are based on clear legal criteria,” McAdam said.
India has the largest number of Australian citizens and permanent residents who want to come home, followed by Britain, the United States, the Philippines, and Thailand.
Australia has indicated that its international borders are unlikely to fully reopen until 2022.
Australia has diagnosed just over 29,300 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began. The Health Department says 909 people have died.